September is always a time for self-reflection. In a way, the start of the school year makes it feel like the end of the year, though not quite. I find myself thinking of the goals and deadlines I set for 2015. Back in January I wrote a post called The 7 Deadly Do’s and Don’ts of Deadlines, and I created a calendar of writing deadlines for myself.
Now nine months later, how is that going? Was setting self-imposed deadlines harmful or helpful to my writing process?
Let’s get the painful stuff out of the way first: I have not met my deadlines. What went wrong? Looking back on my 7 Do’s & Don’ts, it’s clear that I didn’t do Do #2 and take enough time to learn what works for me. Consequently, my deadlines were uninformed guesses of how long I thought the stages should take. I should also point out that my guesses were based roughly on writing screenplays, which are hella short compared to novels. The big bad result of all this is that I’ve been feeling like a stinking pile of failure for months now. I tried to follow Don’t #5 (don’t dwell on missed deadlines), but when all deadlines are missed, that’s kind of impossible.
From that perspective, deadlines (at least the chronically missed kind) are pretty harmful to my morale. But on the flip side, these deadlines give me focus and get my butt in my writing chair every day, so they’re helpful from the perspective of time spent writing.
Despite the tears and disappointment, I really do find deadlines helpful, I just need a new approach. So for all of the writers struggling with self-imposed deadlines (like me), here are 3 simple ideas for making deadlines work for you, not against you.
1. Create short-term deadlines. Daily, weekly and monthly at most. In my first deadline calendar, I had deadlines for the whole year! And when I missed one it shoved the others out of whack until my calendar was useless and I was a snivelling mess begging for Father Time to just stop the damn clock already and let me catch up! However, if I set deadlines within just a month, I can adjust when I realize something is taking longer than expected. For example, I can make the decision to push back other work in order to meet a writing deadline, or push back the deadline so nothing else in my life suffers. In essence, short-term deadlines help me focus on writing, but don’t stress me out by screwing up my whole year if I need to modify them.
2. Set goals for the next day. I find if I just stop writing the day before with no plan of attack for the next morning, I will sit at my computer getting orientated for like an hour or two, rereading what I wrote the day before and wondering, “What now?” But if at the end of the writing day, I spend a few minutes considering where I left off and brainstorm a plan for how to start the next day, I begin writing much sooner. For some people, this is as simple as “end in the middle of a sentence.” The idea being that you know how to finish that sentence and will just pick up where you left off and keep writing. For others, it’s flushing out the whole next scene. For me, it’s often deciding what my next story development stage is. For example: write character sketch for villain, or start outlining Act II, or update the beat sheet to reflect the changes I made to the heroine’s inner conflict. If I don’t plan this the night before, I’ll wake up all foggy-brained and waste time trying to decide what to work on. I don’t make decisions well in the morning, so nighttime pre-planning is essential. Best of all, these next-day goals are tiny deadlines that keep the writing moving.
3. Track your accomplishments. In my deadline spreadsheet I now have a column for what I actually accomplish. So even if I don’t meet the deadline to finish Act I, I note that I did write ten of the twelve scenes. Not only does that note make me feel like less of a failure, it helps me see patterns in my writing (i.e. I can write 10 scenes a week, but not 12), so when I make deadlines for the next month or the next book, I have a better chance of accomplishing them because I know how long it takes me to complete various stages of a novel.
And those are my three simple ideas for making deadlines work for me, not against me. What about you guys? How do you make deadlines productive and not soul-destroying?